Daily Fishing and Outdoor Report

July 10 -- Weekly Column (Danger -- There might be nonfishing stuff within!)

Seeing Stripers In Situ and Goin’ Buggy

SCOPING LAIDBACK STRIPERS: In response to my recent columns on spearfishing, I had a majorly interesting chat with a highly experienced diver (non fisherman) who has been scuba diving and snorkeling our jetties for years. I won’t say exactly where he goes because he’s not supposed to be diving some of the more inlet-ish sites.

He offered me astounding tales of watching stripers that “looked as big as humans” causally cruising along the rocks -- during the height of the summer no less, when big bass are supposed to be up in Nantucket or some damned place like that.

He said many bass allow themselves to be approached with impunity. “All they do is raise their dorsal (fins) when I get near them. Eventually, they drift off.”

He further noted that it is possible to observe bigger bass with the naked eye by standing atop jetty rocks, providing you know what to look for. “I’ve been watching them for so long when diving, I now know what to look for when on the rocks above water.”

Identifying bass from jetty rocks centers on being able to pick out a piece of bottom that is “thicker and a bit darker” than the surrounding sands, he said. “It’s tough, though. They match the bottom amazingly well.”

I can confirm that color match from the many times I’ve been bass ogling when swimming (with goggles) or snorkeling, mainly in Ship Bottom, Brant Beach and North Beach. When looked down, the light golden (and reflective) color of the bass is a dead match for the bottom. You often have to focus and refocus your downward gaze to home in on lounging stripers. That holds true when bass watching from the rocks.

Using polarized sunglasses (I prefer the orange-tinted type), you have to pass your focus through the various layers of the water column since bass will hang out at different depths, though mainly near the bottom.

I liken bass watching to looking for mullet when casting net. When mullet are running on the bottom -- and matching the sand color -- literally thousands of them can be parading by and all a mis-focused netter will see is seemingly undulating bottom sand. The baitfish become plain as day once you’ve established the proper focus margins.

But none of that explains why bass are so seemingly indifferent to divers, especially near the beachfront jetties?

I think the answer is simple and obvious: During their lifetimes, nearshore stripers have seen hundreds and hundreds (and hundreds) of bathers. These large mammals (us) virtually never represent any threat whatsoever. In fact, in-water mankind is a good thing.

I’m certain that striped bass take advantage of those crowded bathing days, when the beachfront shallows are loaded with homo sapiens waders. All those bottom-smashing human feet have to create a significant amount of sand stir, exposing worms, clams and crabs. There is also a huge crab crush rate, as bathers smash the crustaceans underfoot. Also, baitfish are famous for zipping toward bathers (and waveriders on boards) as sanctuary. Such a tasty bass/mankind set-up has to play into a striper’s confidence around in-water humanity.

That confidence factor is why stripers are so easily approached by divers. The fish do not readily process the subtle change when a human dons a mask, flippers and comes down to visit.

In a quasi-scientific vein, I also have to note that stripers are not heavily preyed upon, period. They are among top-of-the-chain specie, especially with the demise of shark populations. That makes for a certain inner calmness.

What’s more, bass are not big on the fleeing thing, a highly animated action that is bothersome to a fish that is basically a loafer.

Of course, another human-indifferent species is the kingfish, which gets eaten by all sorts of predators. Still, I’ve gone down and all but eaten worms off the bottom with kingfish that are so indifferent to my being there they don’t even stop to check me out. Like bass, the kingfish is no threat from man. And there is absolutely no doubt these panfish opportunistically eat around bathers’ feet. I’ve seen them doing so on clear-water summer’s days.

This trust thing begs the question of whether or not it’s unfair for divers to go after unsuspecting stripers? To that I ask: How is it any different to go after unsuspecting bass by throwing out a chunk of clam or bunker with a hook in it?

Also, if you’re instantly inclined to go PETA on me -- by emotionalizing the interplay between bass and humans -- you should note the belly content of bass. They freely inhale any and every creature they can get their mouths around. I once found a duckling in one. I’m thinking those inhalees will debate the cuddliness of stripers.

MORE THAN HIS BELLYCAN: Email: “Jay, I haven’t seen many pelican this year. Is there any reason for that?”

It’s more a question of why we began seeing them in the first place. .

Maybe 20 years back, brown pelicans (actually, a subspecies of same) began making an unprecedented showing here in Jersey. Now we see them virtually every summer. Their arrival is marked by a distinct call that sounds something like, “Look, a pelican!” The birds themselves actually make very little noise.

Despite their recurrent visits to LBI, New Jersey is not part of the species’ natural range, which is roughly Maryland and southward.

By the by, birds traveling outside their normal range are called vagrants. Of course, you have to run away after saying that to their faces.

Hereabouts, pelican numbers vary from summer to summer. What we see are primarily juvenile and young adult birds.

Some years, pelicans are packed upon the sandbars inside Barnegat Inlet. Being colonial creatures, they instinctively gather in close quarters, where they not only feel secure but also get to ask each other “Where the hell are we?”

Nationally, pelican numbers are slowly increasing after a very dramatic recovery following a catastrophic decline due to DDT use into the Seventies. Still, the pelican numbers are not at a historic high by any stretch.

So why are they showing up here?

I’ve heard very few theories on why these big-beaked thermal gliders began arriving here, out of the blue, so I came up with my own less-than-upbeat theory. I think they’re responding to over-development and overfishing to our south.

As build-out as we’re getting locally, it’s still better up here than in many other coastal zones to the south, especially around the Chesapeake. Apparently, many younger pelicans have homed in on the Jersey Shore. None nest here, per se, though some paired birds go through nest building behavior – in a plutonic kinda way.

Despite their short history hereabouts, pelicans are already an avian favorite for birdwatchers and beachgoers alike. And it seems they’ll be hanging around – in varying numbers – well into the future.

YEAR OF THE AGGRAVATING INSECT: I have to check the Chinese calendar to see if there’s a Year of the Annoying Flying Insect. If there is, I’ll bet it’s symbolized by Confucius jumping around swatting furiously at the air – and issuing the only banned “Confucius says …” on the books.

Calendarized or not, this is a brutally buggy year.

I catch some outback time just about every day so I have a solid read on what’s out and about in the Pinelands. I can offer with beyond-anecdotal assuredness that the flying insect hatches this summer are through the ceiling. What I call “eye gnats” lead the pack.

Eye gnats live up to their buggy little names. They constantly hover near your eyeballs, trying to land near juicy tear ducts – where they’ll hand out tiny little daiquiris and splash around partying like a bunch of humans in a hot tub.

As I do my high-sweat activities, eye gnats drive me buggy. But they’re just the first flying insect volley. Combined with fast and infuriating backbiting deer flies, squadron after squadron of biting no-see-‘ems (nits), saltwater mosquitoes (proud to be called “the most aggressive mosquitoes on the planet”) and your obligatory bump-and-grind greenhead horseflies and a walkabout becomes hell on hiking boots.

Cashing in on the biting-insect bounty are dragonflies, part of my “good guys” brigade. These relentlessly retaliatory insects, able to eat hundreds of biting insects at a single sitting, are led locally by a personal favorite, the white-tailed dragonfly -- not to be confused with whitetail deer, which are a thousand times larger and have fewer and smaller wings. (Hey, after bugs are landing in your eyes constantly you see a lot of weird appendages on the animals out there.)

I was recently visiting a secreted pickerel lake in the Greenwood Forest State Park. I debooted on the bank and stepped in for a cool-down in the immaculate, deep-reddish brown waters – colored from the tannins in pine needles and such. When I got out to drip dry by standing on the hot sugar sand, jumbo-sized white-tailed dragonflies lit on my feet and lower legs. Half a dozen or more perched on my skin. Maybe they like pale white surfaces. From there, they would take off, heartbeat fast, grab a small gnat or fly and re-land right where they took off. It was quite cool -- not to mention an ultimately odd feeling for my skin surface.

Speaking of biting insects, I’m trying out a product called Deer Fly Defense Patch. It’s totally weird — so I’m sold on it already.

The Defense Patch is a four-inch piece of tape, sticky on both sides, which you slap on the back of your clothing or cap. Backbiting deer flies purportedly get a whiff of some irresistibly attractive hormone on the tape, forget biting me, and move in for a terminal touchdown, dead-stuck on the stickiness.

(Hey, if you’re a baby boomer you have to remember those dangling super-sticky fly-paper thingies that grandmas would hang from the kitchen ceiling like party streamers. The first thing I’d do when I came flying in the back door -- wooden screen door slamming shut behind me followed by the automatic lie that I had cleaned off my feet before coming in -- was to pull out a table chair and climb up to closely observe any new insects tapped to death. In kindergarten, other kids would draw pictures of their mommy and daddy while I’d be there drawing a piece of tape with emphatically suffering insects. Good thing they didn’t Ritalin back then.)

Anyway, I used this Defense Patch and it kinda worked. I snared a load of deer flies but other innocent insects were also terminally stuck. I tried, with moderate success, to pry off the good guy flies. Of course, those released bugs now have to contend with the social stigma of flying around smelling like what I guess amounts to a horny female deer fly.

LET ME SEE YOUR TAPE, MISTER: In the face of this anti-deer fly tape, I now wonder about stick-ons for all types of insects. You could have tick tape, gnat tape, greenhead tape, you-name-it tape.

I can see me merrily exploring with my back crisscrossed with tapes of every sort. Over the summer, maybe create a scrapbook of past tape pieces and the insects eternalized there upon.

Of course, just my luck I’d be de-taping when a Fish and Wildlife guy comes skidding up in his official state SUV, screaming, “Let me see your hands mister!”

Seems, I had inadvertently taped to death a quadruple endangered triple-spotted Double Trouble single-dipper five-fly.

“You’re in big trouble, buddy. There are only 27 triple-spotted Double Trouble single-dipper five-flies left in the world. Make that 26,” he offers.

Of course, I begin swearing up and down that it’s actually the very common four-spotted Double Trouble single-dipper five-fly, to which he responds, “Quit resisting mister or I’ll be forced to use my two-sided resisting persons tape on you!”

“Really? I didn’t know such a thing existed. Very cool,” I say, intently interested.

“Yep, just got it in. Check it out. It comes on this huge roll. I keep in the back of my SUV,” he says, pulling a roll out, needing two hands to move it.

“Wow. It looks just like a huge Scotch tape dispenser,” I note, offering myself an internalized “You gotta be kidding me” chuckle.

He smiles proudly, “Yep. I just tear off the needed size, maybe three feet, slap it onto my SUV bumper and then push someone like yourself onto the tape. Bad guys just stick there, flailing their arms,”

“Wow, have you stuck anyone yet?” I ask in amazement.

“Sure have,” he says. “ Just the other day I stuck some poacher onto the rear quarter-panel and drove around doing donuts in the Quail Fields. Laughed my ass off. He’ll think twice about poaching again.”

“That’s hilarious,” I say, laughing along with him. “Did you still fine the guy?”

“Actually, no. I kinda lost him somewhere in either Field 17 or 18.”

Thinking about that poacher’s ride, I blurt, “Hey, can I try the tape? Maybe go out to the Quail Fields?”

The officer offer a why-not should lift. “Sure. Tell you what, stand over here. No, a little more to the left and closer to the wheel well. Ok, now resist.”

I think for a second then launch into a faux-angry, “You bloodsucking tick-covered Fascist pig, your mother wears Gore-Tex combat boots!”

“Oh, whoa, whoa,” interrupts the cop. “My mother passed away recently.”

“Oh, geez! I’m sorry buddy,” I offer sincerely.

“Yeah, it was tough at first but I got a flower tattoo on my back to remember her,” he says, lifting up the back of his shirt to show me.

“Oh, that’s great,” I say, adding “Oh, by the way, I see all that flying insect tape next to the tattoo. I think you’re supposed to wear that tape on the outside of your clothes.”

“Really,” he puzzles, transferring the tape onto the back of his shirt, announcing, “Oh, I get it. So the bugs will stick to it.”

“Just like bad guys,” I toss in.

Properly taped shirt back on, he asks, “There how that?”

With an awkward-moment face, I offer, “That’s just fine, officer, but look what just flew on, a quadruple endangered triple-spotted Double Trouble single-dipper five-fly. I’m thinkin’ that would be number 25. ”

“Oh, man. This is not good,” he says, staring at the expiring insect. “ I’ll tell you what. Let’s just pretend none of this ever happened.”

“Works for me. Here, let me help you get this anti-resister tape back into your SUV.”

RUNDOWN: A fleet of Barnegat Inlet-based anglers have been rushing north to cash in on the bunker baitball action (see below).

I wish I could say the LBI-based bassing was something special but that is not the feedback I’ve gotten. A slow striper go on any beachfronts. Sure, there were some better bass takes along the beachfront but the overall feel was not one of heavy hooking. Better bass included J.L.’s 32-inch bass on “bait.” In his words, “I was thinking hard about keeping it but it gave me one of those looks and I just released it.” Been there, John.

A die-hard plugger I know has been getting “a couple fish (bass) each morning,” using mainly small swimming plugs. “The fish are there,” he added. He recently lost one of his all-time favorite plugs to a huge bluefish that he almost got in on mere 12-pound unleadered line.

The wreck fishing (out a ways) is very good if you’re one of the early birds. On that structure, black seabass are everywhere, mainly 2-pounders (on the large end). This week will offer smooth sailing in the a.m. but afternoons could give way to sassier waters when sideshore winds kick in from the south.

Fluking is where you find it, which is mainly in the ocean, though inlets are active as this hot weather drives the flatties out of the shallower bay areas.

The halo zone around the reefs and Tires are gathering fluke. That zone is the sand-bottom area affected by the nearby hard structure. It is often loaded with invertebrates and small crustaceans. It also gets the passers by, baitfish and such, related to the reefs. Bill Figley was among the first to notice that bonus fishing zone. I’ve seen it extend hundreds of yards from the structure, maybe even a half mile. It is obviously prime fluking terrain.

Speaking of the fluke bite, the south end waters have seen an insane intrusion of small sea robins. That is not good.

There are goodly numbers of porgies showing. While some of these are near structure, there are also schools seemingly milling about over open bottom. You know they’re around when your fluke baits keep getting repeatedly rapped and cleaned off. Tiny hooks will bring these fine eating fish aboard. The problem there is the easy time fluke have spitting out small baithooks.

I had a number of reports of fully nonstop gator bluefishing from the “offshore” stock. Some headboats and charterboats have been going out that far. Do some arm strengthening exercises before you head out after those slammers. In closer, shoreline blues have become very scattered and far from a sure-find when in need of at least something (anything) to reel in.

Here’s an email read on that baitball bassing action just to our north. It offers some good angling advice within: “Jay, … Heard the bassing off Seaside was hot for snagging bunker so we left @ 4:45 AM SAT morning and started snagging bunker. Nothing doing until we found a smaller pod off Seaside and we were off to the races. The three of us landed 4 cows of 37.5 lbs, 36.3 lbs, 31.5 lbs and 30 lbs evern. Largest fish was 44 1/2 inches long with a huge girth and was caught on 12 lb test. Who said you can't land big fish on light line. We also had 5-6 other runoffs all on the same pod. There were about 6 boats on this pod and a kayaker who also landed a big fish. Everyone respected each other as far as backing off when we had fish on and it was nice to see that after all the reports and experiences of combat fishing. Didn't have any other hits on any of the 5 other bunker pods we stopped on so my advice for what it's work is to move around on different pod until you find the fish and please respect those boats who are hooked up, it makes for a much better fishing experience for all. And yes the fish has been filet and flash frozen and will feed all of our 3 families for a couple weeks. Tight lines, Potter.”


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